Back when rock & roll burst out of roadhouses and clubs on the wrong side of town and onto the airwaves, the saxophone was every bit as important as the guitar, piano, or drums in defining the sound -- a few players, like Rudy Pompili, did emerge as stars in their own right, with serious audiences and a lot of name recognition; others, like Jimmy Wright, the reedman and bandleader in residence for George Goldner's various labels, deserved stardom but never got it. Directly in between them was Lee Allen, who played on dozens of hits and many hundreds of sides, by artists including Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Little Richard, but never managed to make a lasting foothold on the charts himself. In the process of trying, though, he generated one of the finest and most-beloved instrumental albums to come out of the New Orleans R&B boom of the 1950s.
Lee Allen was born in Pittsburg, KS (some sources claim Sewanee, TN), in 1926. Following the death of his father in 1927, his mother moved the family to Denver, CO, where Allen grew up. He showed a natural musical aptitude as a boy and gravitated toward the saxophone, which was an integral part of the swing sound that was in full bloom, as well as the sounds of jump blues. Allen was also a talented athlete, which allowed him to qualify for a combined athletic and music scholarship from Xavier College in New Orleans. He arrived in the city just as postwar rhythm & blues were coalescing -- by that time, he was under the spell of Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons, and he began playing locally while still in college. By 1947, he'd forsaken a future on any playing field in favor of blowing sax in a band fronted by Paul Gayten. He soon crossed paths with producer/composer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew and, through him, ended up playing behind Fats Domino, Little Richard, Amos Milburn, and Smiley Lewis, among numerous others. Allen, his fellow tenorman Alvin "Red" Tyler, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Earl Palmer were at the core of some of the best rock & roll and rhythm & blues to come out of New Orleans during the 1950s, including most of Fats Domino's biggest hits of the period.
Allen was a lucky man when it came to his gigs as a session musician and sideman, but he was never able to translate that into success under his own name. In 1956, he tried stepping forward with a pair of sides, "Shimmy" and "Rockin' at Cosimo's," for the Aladdin label, but they went nowhere. The following year, he signed a contract as a producer and recording artist with Al Silver, the owner of the New York-based Ember Records and Herald Records, best-known as the home of the Silhouettes (whose "Get a Job" could well be the biggest hit Silver ever issued), the Turbans, and the Five Satins. He produced artists including Ernie Kador (later better-known as Ernie K-Doe), Joe Jones, and Tommy Ridgely, even as he toured with Domino and others. In 1958, Allen recorded a bouncy, rocking instrumental that he'd devised while on the road with Domino, using the title "Walkin' With Mr. Lee" -- it was picked up by Dick Clark, who used it many times on American Bandstand, and ended up riding the middle level of the national charts for three months that year, peaking at number 54 but selling well enough over that time to work its way into a lot of households, on top of what Clark did for Allen and the record on his show. Allen's later release, "Tic Toc," only charted for a week, and "Cat Walk" made it onto some radio-station play lists, but it was "Walkin' With Mr. Lee" that made his reputation. Allen ended up cutting a complete album entitled Walkin' With Mr. Lee for Ember, which contained some surprisingly elegant jazz and blues in between its stomping New Orleans-style numbers, and was probably a little too sophisticated for most of the teen audience that it was aimed at -- the LP became a serious collectors' item over the decades that followed, as Allen's only full-length testament to his work and a fascinating artifact of the rock & roll boom. He was able to get enough gigs to keep a touring band together right up through 1961, after which he rejoined Fats Domino, playing with him until the middle of the decade.
In 1965, Allen left New Orleans and moved to Los Angeles, where he kept his hand in music with gigs at small clubs and occasional session work. At some point, he did leave music for a steadier job at an aircraft factory, but when the oldies boom hit in the early '70s, he was back working with Fats Domino again. He returned to private life at the end of the decade, but with the dawn of the 1980s Allen was once again getting requests for his services, now from a whole new generation of rock & rollers -- he played sessions with the Stray Cats and established a whole new name for himself working with the California-based band the Blasters, doing two albums with them in the early '80s. It was an unexpected and welcome coda to four decades of making music. ~ Bruce Eder